Rafting on the Ganges from Marine Drive to Rishikesh, a gradual return to post-pandemic normalcy. Photo: Red Chilli Adventure

Do what you have to do
Resolutely, with all your heart.
The traveler who hesitates
Only raises dust on the road

The Dhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha (Thomas Byrom translation)

March 6 marked the first big rafting Sunday in Rishikesh since the New Year weekend. Traffic jams were back, right up to Marine Drive 26 kilometers away. Blue, white, yellow, red, inflatable Hypalon-made rafts were back riding the Ganges rapids. The great river rippled under early spring sunshine. Pre-pandemic routines were back.

But uncertainty is life’s certainty, more so with this curious Covid episode in 21st-century history. I call Gular village 25km from Rishikesh the “Frontier of Sanity.” The bridge of Gular is the edge of the Covid divide. The road to Rishikesh leads to masks and e-passes; the opposite way has Himalayan villages enjoying mask-free purer air and natural social distancing.

Mountainside houses are spread apart in Lodsi village about 3km from Gular. No masks here, as I saw after more than two months of meditating in a tent in a tranquil Himalayan forest. No sickness yet.

For health in higher altitudes, daily walking becomes Mother Nature’s tonic. Death then seems distant – not too distant for me, my intuition says. My days are done. But before death soon inevitably arrives, my long-pending accounts need settling through intensive meditation.

Then, the “I” to which there is so much prickly attachment dissolves into sub-atomic reality, to the core quantum reality of all things in the cosmos: the continuous arising, passing away each moment.

When the mind lives in this impermanent moment, the ego “I” disappears. “To one who perceives the impermanence, the perception of insubstantiality manifests itself,” said the Buddha, “and in one who perceives insubstantiality, egotism is destroyed.” The happier journey continues, of service across eons and asankheyas (countless eons) of limitless time.

Time seems to stand still in the Himalayas, in the still trees and mountain peaks silently watching humans on the highway of dreams, rushing, chasing elusive shadows – running around the world for happiness and peace that is within.

Inner peace brings nature closer. From my forest tent, I see serene beauty – a little Shangri-La. Under shining blue skies Mother Ganga smiles in a curve around purple mountains that loom above a terraced-green valley that reminds me of Kashmir – India’s other earthly paradise.

A trekker atop Kuari Pass, with a panoramic view of Nanda Devi (right), India’s highest peak (7,816 meters). Nanda Devi was the writer’s first Himalayan destination circa 2005. Photos: Arvind Bhardwaj

At night, the full moon glows like a white crystal ball as old as the Earth. Lights of mountain hamlets scattered in solitary splendor shine like fallen stars. Surreal is the 6:30am walk down the mountain trail in the misty morning light, for a glass of ginger tea amid the earthy fragrance of smoky wood fire in Harish Koli’s highway eatery Café Milestone.

“We need the early morning walk to keep fit in the mountains,” Harish had said. He speaks English occasionally, has his Gmail ID in Hindi, and is teaching himself to play the guitar. He was a school classmate to Mukesh Singh Mahar whose Lodsi family home I stayed in for 10 days in January.

Another classmate, Ashish, owns the Chauhan Dhaba where I occasionally have lunch of rice and dal (lentils). Ashish’s forefathers came from Rajasthan, a state in northern India that is linked to my life.

Interconnections link life’s undercurrent patterns. Look closely and interconnections are there, for nothing called coincidence exists – only the Law of Cause and Effect across lifetimes. It brings people into our life at the right time, separates people at times – and sometimes brings them back at another time for a purpose. Not a thing happens by chance.

The connections reach us. Rishikesh and Green Hills Cottage (now 60’s Green Hills) became my beneficial long-term Himalayan meditation base when I was not heading there.

I was on the way to the Valley of Flowers circa 2005. On what later became my frequent Air India Flight 101 from Mumbai to New York via Delhi, the girl from Poland sitting next to me said she was going to Rishikesh. Rishikesh was on the way to Valley of Flowers, and I remembered my then fellow assistant teacher of Vipassana Dilip Deshpande often telling me, “Go to Rishikesh.”

So I did. We arrived from Delhi on a warm afternoon in the market-town part of Rishikesh. It disappointingly looked like any other unremarkable north Indian town. “Can you take us to where there are green hills?” I asked the auto-rickshaw (tuk-tuk) driver, thinking surely Rishikesh is supposed to be in the Himalayan foothills.

Where’s the picturesque scenery with green hills? I asked. And the auto-rickshaw driver brought us to Green Hills Cottage. The small hotel was idyllic, with a view of the Himalayan foothills, a nice garden, and a wood-oven pizza house.

Green Hills in Tapovan for the next two decades became a favorite home where I could meditate strongly in Rishikesh, before leaving for the upper Himalayas. “This might be a hotel now, but people must have been meditating here for thousands of years,” I told Suresh Pundir, one of the four brothers owning Green Hills Cottage.

No check-in for me on arrival in Green Hills Cottage. I was just given the key to a usual top-floor room. Suresh, his brothers Dinesh, Kewal and Dev and their late father were helpful many times. They accepted a nominal payment and once even refused to accept payment for a four-day stay.

The four brothers then leased Green Hills Cottage to four partners who are great fans of the four Beatles. I call them the Four Hospitality Beatles of Rishikesh.

I turned their names into Keith “Lennon,” “Ringo” Rishi, Manvender “McCartney,” and Chandan “Harrison.” They turned Green Hills Cottage into 60’s Green Hills and into what is for me the best place to stay in Rishikesh. The beautifully lit garden at night looks straight out of an Arabian Nights fairytale.

60’s Green Hills, with an overview of the 60’s Cafe and the Beatles Lounge (right). Photos: Keith Dympep

Interconnecting patterns weave together lives. Rajasthan appears like a beneficial interconnection in my life – as if Rajasthan is Raja’s-sthan (Raja’s place). Circa 1993 from The Statesman office in Mumbai I went to Rajasthan to do my first 10-day Vipassana course in Dhamma Thali, Jaipur. I was not seeking a path. The path and paramis (accumulated merits) reached out. Destiny called.

The destiny connected me to the Myanmar-born principal teacher of Vipassana, Most Compassionate Sayagyi U Goenka (1924-2013), whose ancestors were from Churu, Rajasthan.

A sanyasi from Rajasthan hosted my first longer stay in the upper Himalayas, in his hermitage in Badrinath by the icy Saraswati-Alaknanda River and snowy mountains. Sanjay’s father Balveer Singh told me on the first evening of my Lodsi stay: “We are Rajputs from Rajasthan.” Brave Rajputs consider death better than living with dishonor.

The Rajasthan interconnection continues. The Himalayan forest tent in which I meditate exists on land co-owned by Ganesh Gurjar from Alwar, Rajasthan. Alwar is 45km from Viratnagar, the modern name for Bairath in Rajasthan to where Emperor Asoka journeyed from Pataliputra (Patna) to learn Vipassana.

As with Emperor Asoka 2000 years ago, and others now in more than 100 countries, the Vipassana birth is my real birth. It’s a life heading for fruitful work in the upper Himalayas.

My ancestry – as far as I know from a certain momentary experience during Vipassana practice – stretches back to a category of some whose existential volition is to serve all beings toward their liberation from suffering. On such long-term service, everyone becomes family, and the universe my home.

 The writing cost of this article is donated by Satish Shankar, a past pupil of Don Bosco, Egmore, 1984; the series is in association with Red Chilli Adventure and Sukoon Home Stay, Rishikesh. Raja Murthy has been a Mumbai-based contributor to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and earlier for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com, The Hindu and others.

This is the fifth article in an eight-part series. To see other “Postcards from the Edge” articles, use this link, which will be updated as the series progresses.